Nostalgia for BattleTech and MechWarrior

One of my favorite game series is called BattleTech. It’s for a variety of reasons, but two things always jump out. Amazing lore and lots of customization options. If you don’t recognize BattleTech, then you might know it by its PC version known as MechWarrior.

If you’re into the series, you also know that there is a MechWarrior Online game that is… well, a disappointment. Lots of fundamentals are there, but like many MMOs, the developers are far more interested in micro transactions and easy fixes rather than furthering the franchise.

By now, we know that PGI will not fundamentally overhaul MechWarrior Online. They have neither the talent or the inclination, so we’re stuck with a slow release of repetitive maps, gameplay and mechs. It’s a shame, because I would LOVE to spend more money on the game if that resulted in tangible improvements in game play.

So, I’d love to list a couple of the foundational ideas behind BattleTech that make is such as great (if on life support) series. If you are interested in the series, here are a couple of starting points.

Combat Loss Grouping

We often complain in the MWO about how one side collapses and the game becomes a route. However, this is an intended feature of the game, so much so that it was codified in the original novels as a military theory known as…

Combat Loss Grouping

The principle that a group of ‘Mechs (or other vehicles) engaged in combat will accumulate damage over time, leading to a point where several or all of the group will succumb to damage at the same time. Can also be used to describe the time a unit sustains enough losses that it is no longer a viable fighting force.

The armor that flakes away, inaccurate weapons, and random hit locations all feed into this style of gameplay that strongly mimics good storytelling structure. The forces meet and skirmish, there is a rising action as damage accumulates, and then a climax as mechs quickly start to drop in rapid succession. The game mechanics are fundamentally designed to create this experience!

CLS is the heart of how mech combat plays out, especially in early versions before weapons became more accurate and deadly. That’s when the game world shifted away from small units to mass combat. Mechs drop so fast you lose the tension, so they focused on battalions and regiments rather than those small units.

One way BattleTech handles CLS is through mission objectives that have nothing to do with killing the enemy. For example, reach the other side of the map, scan the target, and return to win the scenario.

Unfortunately, all roads in MWO lead to fighting as the most optimum route, and then you fight to the bitter end no matter how poorly it is going. This leads to endless roll-overs and is the dark side of CLS. The climax becomes a boring slog or shooting gallery as soon as the tide turns.

This is a great thought point for your own game design. What theory holds together the game play and how does that map to an enjoyable player experience? And, how can this be translated across very different versions of a universe: tabletop, PC, cards, etc. Is that even possible?

The Importance of Lore

Lore is the touchy-feely stuff that doesn’t have a direct impact on gameplay. It’s the fluff, the background, etc. For a lot of players, this is a complete waste of time since it doesn’t impact their kill rates, score, etc.

But, from the standpoint of maintaining a user base over the long run, lore is paramount. Consider that MWO was kickstarted/funded in the first place based on the nostalgia of BTech and MW players. Game developers are cashing in on the 30-40s crowd and their nostalgia every day, hence Chris Roberts return to sci-fi game development.

BattleTech and MechWarrior live and die in lore. When the gameplay only focused crowd moves on it’s the lovers of the franchise that remain. A great tabletop example is Warhammer 40K. Through its years of shady company policies, unbalanced editions, and high price, the series has survived and still thrives. I think that has a lot to do with having the most comprehensive lore in almost any game universe. Chris Roberts is also building for the long haul in Star Citizen, with a focus on the lore behind their empires, aliens, and ships.

For your own game, consider how lore gives meaning to the game aside from die rolls and mechanics. This is the game world that your characters interact with. I think you’ll find that a great game world survives mechanics, even bad editions, because nostalgia will keep bringing players back to an awesome setting.

Mech Feelz

One area of success for MWO is the mech art. This did not translate to cockpits, animations, or feelz. Despite the resizing updates and pass overs, mechs still don’t feel like giant robots. The terrain is built for a human sized first person shooter with terrain lanes, rather than the scaling it to a 3-4 story tall robot. There is extreme terrain everywhere, but mechs are meant to be the masters of maneuverability by going through terrain that stops tanks in their tracks.

Each mech should have different sounds when they turn and move ala the Elite experience. Each should have some perk that a player can latch onto and enjoy. Most tabletops do this through unique mechanics that the other classes cannot use: spells, equipment, abilities, etc. Many online games replicate this with their own classes. The key is differentiation, not just in stats but in the entire look and feel.

So, do you have a favorite game system or world? Is anyone trying to bring it back to life, whether on table top, PC, console, etc. and how is that working out?

Photo by Jemimus

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